Short Story – The Long Winter
I missed last week because I had some other deadlines. For that small number of folks who read my stories every week – sorry! I may miss the next two weeks as well because I’ll be on vacation. If I manage to write something, though, I’ll post it.
This week, I’m writing about a post-apocalyptic world. If you want to know what caused the apocalypse, I’m not going to tell you. Sometimes, I find placing a person in a terrible situation more interesting than the situation itself.
As always, please share, critique, enjoy, or ignore! And if you do read the story – thanks!
Toni took a can of beans off of the shelf and fumbled with the can opener. Her stomach turned at the concept of more beans but her choices were becoming more and more limited.
“Mom! I’m hungry!”
“I know you’re hungry, Peg. Everyone is hungry.”
Hagrid purred and rubbed against her leg. He didn’t like beans either but he had, after a lot of coaxing, learned to be a little less picky.
The wind pounded against the windows, which were boarded up to prevent light from escaping. Nobody should be out this time of year but if they were, it was important they didn’t think you were home.
“Get on the bike, Peg.”
“I don’t want to ride the bike!”
“Do you want your beans to be hot?”
“I don’t want beans at all!”
“Well it’s that or the last of the potatoes and those have to be heated up too. So get on the bike!”
Peg grumbled but Toni could hear her climbing on to the generator in the living room. As the eight-year-old pushed the pedals, the burner slowly began to glow red. Toni put the pan on the stove and stirred it mechanically. No amount of stirring would make them taste any better.
“How much longer?” Peg whined.
“Another couple of minutes. Longer if you stop pedaling.”
“I won’t stop!”
She batted away Hagrid, who had jumped on the counter to eat out of the pan if she would only provide him with an opening.
Picking up the pan to test the temperature of their dinner, she was unprepared for the heavy pounding on the door. She let out a scream and dropped the beans on the floor. Hagrid delightedly leapt off the counter and began to eat.
“What was that?”
“It sounded like someone at the door!”
She held her breath. Maybe they hadn’t heard Peg. Maybe they hadn’t heard her drop a pan onto a tile floor. Or scream. Maybe…
Another knock. This one was louder and longer.
“Quiet,” Toni hissed, “Just be quiet!”
“Hello? I know someone’s in there!”
“Get in the pantry! Take Hagrid!”
“Just do it! Exactly like I told you, OK?”
Peg scooped up Hagrid, who was enjoying eating a meal much larger than he’d had in months, and ducked into the kitchen closet. Before she closed the door, Toni grabbed a rifle off the shelf.
She’d run out of bullets months ago. The odds were good their visitor didn’t know that.
“Hello? Just open the door! I don’t want to hurt anyone!”
Toni moved next to the door and cocked her rifle. It was a sound she expected her visitor would recognize and it sent a clear message she was going to defend herself.
“This door stays locked until spring,” she called. “I don’t know how you survived out there mister but you can survive a little longer! Move along!”
“Please! I’m not armed!”
“Well I am and I’m gonna open this door just long enough to shoot you! Move along!”
“I have food!”
Toni glanced back at the remnants of dinner still splattered on the kitchen floor and her stomach growled again.
“What kind of food?”
“I have some frozen beef, some canned tomatoes, some pasta and some rice. And I can get more!”
“Just take a look! All I’m asking for is shelter until spring.”
“That’s what everyone is looking for. Unless they’ve already got it. I’m not keen to give mine up.”
“You don’t have to give it up! Just share! If you share your shelter with me, I’ll share my food with you!”
“I could just let you freeze to death overnight and take everything in the morning.”
“I know you could do that. I just have to believe you won’t.”
Compassion was in short supply and it was plenty dangerous. Toni wasn’t sure she had any left. She also wasn’t sure she wanted a dead man in front of her door in the morning.
“All right,” she finally sighed, “turn around, get on your knees, and put your hands on your head. I’m not trusting you to do it. I’m telling you that if you ain’t on your knees when I open this door, I’m gonna shoot first and figure out if it was a mistake later. You got it?”
“I’ve got it.”
“I’m counting to ten and opening this door. You’d better be ready.”
“I’ll be ready.”
She counted to three and opened the door. If his intentions were hostile, he’d be planning to surprise her when she reached ten. She wouldn’t give him that chance.
The wind howled into the house and she could feel the temperature dropping through the whole house every second. The man was on his knees with his hands behind his head. He held a rope that was tied to a sled covered in blankets. The food he promised was, she guessed, under the blankets. And the blankets were a nice bonus.
She put the muzzle of her gun to the back of his head.
“All right now, you get up and come inside really nice and deliberate.”
He stood up slowly and she walked him into the house, made sure the sled was inside, and then she closed the door.
“Thanks,” he said, “my names Andy.”
“Shut up, Andy. I’m gonna make sure you aren’t packing anything.”
She deliberately frisked him and could find no evidence of a firearm or knife. Finally, she let the rife drop and held out her hand.
“Nice to meet you Andy, I’m Toni. Where’d you get the food?”
Andy shook her hand and smiled. He was probably in his 30’s with a shaggy unkempt beard. Razors were a luxury most people simply didn’t bother to keep. His cheeks were a little bit frostbitten but his eyes were bright and it was clear he was a survivor. He hadn’t given up.
He brushed the snow off of his jacket as he replied.
“House about two blocks down on the corner.”
That was the Robertson place. Beth and Martin were her friends, if there was such a thing as friends any more. They’d scavenged for food together. If there was a decent winter day, she could always count on them for a resupply if she was running low. And they could count on the same from her.
“You know ‘em?”
“Yeah. I know ‘em. What happened?”
“I can’t say for sure, but I’ve got a good theory. Door was busted up and they were inside the living room, frozen. I don’t think it was the cold that got ‘em, though.”
“I think some boys broke in to take their stash. Found a couple of guys in the kitchen shot up pretty good. They must’ve thought they got everyone or heard something up front. There was another shooter who got ‘em in the back.”
Toni motioned to the sled.
“How is it the shooter didn’t take their food?”
“That I can’t tell you. Maybe they wounded him. Maybe he couldn’t get into the pantry.”
“How’d you get in?”
“I used to be a locksmith.”
Andy was starting to sound annoyed. “Yeah, it was pretty damn lucky. For both of us. Because there’s more than enough food over there for winter to last another three months. Judging by the food on your floor, I’m betting you couldn’t have made it.”
Toni softened a little. “Calm down. They were friends of mine, alright?”
“Good to have friends.”
“It was, yes.”
“You have any coffee?”
“I can make some.”
The coffee machine ran on batteries that were currently charged up. Some sort of peace offering might cool the air a little bit. Setting her rifle on the table, she turned away from him to fetch the grounds. It was a bad choice and she knew it. You didn’t turn your back on people these days.
Trust was in such short supply, though. She just wanted to see if she could trust someone long enough to make a cup of coffee.
The sound of her rifle being picked up from the table was all she needed to know her trust had been misplaced.
“So..I’m guessing you don’t really want that coffee?”
“Oh, I’ll have the coffee. But I believe I can make it myself.”
She turned to see her own gun leveled at her chest. Andy was chuckling at his own deception.
“So would I be right to assume you are the person who shot Beth and Martin in the back?”
Andy shrugged. “It was fortuitous timing. The other two guys had them distracted. I just had to wait until the fight was over.”
“Well then,” she asked, “why didn’t you just spend the rest of the winter over there?”
“The door was smashed all to hell. Keeping warm was going to be a real challenge. Your place looked in much better shape.”
“Why you people gotta do this? Ain’t it tough enough living without making everyone your enemy?”
He smiled a half-smile but his eyes were cold and uncaring. “I don’t know,” he said, “I guess you gotta do something for fun these days.”
He pulled the trigger and, of course, nothing happened.
She smiled back at him. “No bullets.”
“No big deal,” he laughed, “I can beat you to death with it sure as I can shoot you.”
The chance never came, though. The pantry door swung open and Peg fired two shotgun shells into his chest. He cried out in pain and slumped to the floor, moaning and trying to stop the blood from coming out of his body. Hagrid trotted out of the closet and began to lap up blood that slowly pooled on the floor. It was a good day to be a cat.
“Good girl,” Toni sighed, “you did it just like I told you.”
Peg was disappointed. “I shot him twice, mama. I wasted a shell.”
“Not to worry, little girl. You gotta make sure. Besides, I know where we can get more.”
Andy was still groaning. She leaned over and whispered in his ear.
“All you had to do was leave the rifle on the table and we both would’ve gotten outta winter alive. I gave you that chance. Now, my cat is going to be eating your corpse until spring. Peggy, darling, I need you to help me clean this man up.”
“Aw mama! Do I have to?”
“I ain’t doing it alone!”
“Fine! I feel kinda bad. He seemed nice at first.”
“They all seem nice at first, baby.”
Still awake, Andy could feel the saw as Peg began to cut off his hand at the wrist.